Come, Let Us Lamentate in Agony to the Lord

Have you ever read the book of Lamentations?  It’s not exactly a popular one, and that’s understandable.  It’s five chapters of an unnamed author poetically whining about how awful life is for the people of Judah during their exile.  Who wants to read that for morning devotions?  And what pastor would preach this bummer of a book to a congregation who’d probably find it distasteful and largely irrelevant to their “spiritual lives”?  Think about it:  You couldn’t have a historically or theologically complete Bible without Genesis or Samuel or Isaiah or Matthew or Romans, but is Lamentations really that important to read and know?

Well, that’s a stupid question.  If you approach the Bible with an attitude that looks to distinguish the “important” parts of Scripture from the “less important” parts, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of great stuff.  And by great, I mean “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  And if that doesn’t interest you, then honestly, the “important” parts probably aren’t going to do you much good either.

In the last couple days, I’ve read Lamentations several times, and though I’m still in the process of receiving it, so far I have concluded with certainty that you need to read this book.  Yes, you need to.  Listen, we are among the most pampered and insulated groups to ever be called God’s people.  In the day-to-day happenings of our personal lives, few of us have run into situations like this:

20 “Look, O LORD, and consider:
Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?

21 “Young and old lie together
in the dust of the streets;
my young men and maidens
have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity.

22 “As you summon to a feast day,
so you summoned against me terrors on every side.
In the day of the LORD’s anger
no one escaped or survived;
those I cared for and reared,
my enemy has destroyed.”
(2:20-22)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the God we worship.  He did that.  To his own people.  Instead of a “sloppy wet kiss,” this time heaven met earth like a Louisville Slugger, and the fact that we rarely experience tragedy of this magnitude does not diminish our responsibility to reckon with the reality of God’s active, causative sovereignty over our suffering.

As I continue to read and meditate on Lamentations, my understanding of the book’s timeless significance for all God’s people is beginning to take shape.  I hope to be back here in a few days to share what I have found.  In the meantime, I encourage you to read this book.  Read it all the way through in one sitting.  Out loud.  And then again the next day, and for several days afterward, so that the Lord may use it to shape and reshape your knowledge of His ways and draw you to worship.  Trust Him in this way, step out in faith, and the Spirit will use Lamentations to transform you.  I have no doubt.  You may even find that tucked away within this little poem is the bold and crazy truth that Jesus loves you.  Go on, prove me wrong.  You won’t.

See you in a few.

One Nation Under Gosh

I think I watched more golf in one sitting this past Sunday than ever before.*  During the final round of the 2011 U.S. Open, sports fans everywhere were on the edges of their seats (well, as much as possible for watching golf, anyway) as 22-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy shattered the all-time U.S. Open score record by four strokes and secured his first major PGA title victory.  It was a pretty exciting day for professional sports and for the good people of the Emerald Isle, but many red-blooded patriotic Christian Americans were outraged by the 2011 U.S. Open, for a reason that will eventually validate this paragraph’s existence on a blog about Jesus and the Church.

At the start of Sunday’s coverage of the event, NBC played a feature that was essentially meant to highlight a bunch of awesome famous American stuff and generally show how sweet America is.  While I presumably did have the TV on when this feature aired, it completely escaped my notice–probably because I was too busy listening to my uncle joke about the newly-popularized use of therapeutic BOTOX injections to treat hemorrhoid problems.**  (It’s real, I promise.)  Anyway, a few hours later commentator Dan Hicks took a break from the action to say something that wasn’t about golf at all, and this time I was paying attention.  (Check out this classy video-camera-pointed-at-a-TV footage!)

Before his statement was over I could already guess what had been so offensively omitted from the pledge of allegiance.  Here’s the original feature:

As you can see, somebody at NBC decided that the full pledge of allegiance would not appear in the feature (either time it was recited), and the phrase “under God” was one of the few portions of the pledge that did not make the final cut.  Though the specific source and purpose of this decision are unknown, many viewers were outraged by the omission and immediately began tweeting and blogging about their indignation over the purported travesty.  Before long, NBC became aware of the outcry, realized their faux pas, and issued an on-air apology to minimize backlash.  Nevertheless, the feature and subsequent apology have been a popular talking point since then, due no doubt to the endless potential for disagreement and controversy over whether the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge in the first place.

Now I think most of us can agree that NBC made a mistake–if not by violating some moral principle, then at the very least by inviting negative publicity and unnecessarily offending viewers.  I figure those people who are offended by the God-phrase being in the pledge are at least used to it being there and wouldn’t have fussed about it to NBC had they run the full pledge in the feature.  Whoever thought they’d make more people happy by taking “under God” out of the feature sorely underestimated the passion of those who feel it important for America to formally and officially acknowledge the sovereignty of God over the nation.  While NBC certainly has the right to edit the pledge however they choose for their broadcast, it is not their place to decide what should or should not actually be in the pledge, and if it is in fact true that the omission was meant to advance an anti-God-phrase agenda (as many have taken the liberty of assuming without any evidence), the U.S. Open was probably not the ideal front from which to launch an ideological attack on a well-established, traditional, and official government articulation.

But, of course, the real question is whether the phrase “under God” really does belong in the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.  The common assumption is that most Christians like it there, and most non-Christians don’t–but stating people’s feelings about the God-phrase doesn’t really answer the question of whether it is indeed right or fitting.

Personally, I love God, I love America, and I do not think the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge of allegiance.

A few years ago, I read an article by Christianity Today senior writer Rodney Clapp that opened my eyes to some very serious theological problems the God-phrase causes for Christians.  Much of the issue turns on the fact that we don’t get to decide what the word God means in the pledge; the authors (i.e. our governing officials) do.  For instance, a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow) dealt with the constitutionality of the God-phrase given the disestablishment clause in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).  Though the case was eventually dismissed on technical grounds, several of the justices realized the dilemma on their hands–a reference to a deity in an official national pledge–and decided to write opinions anyway.  For instance, in defending the existence of the God-phrase, former Chief Justice Bill Rehnquist wrote:

The phrase “under God” is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion, but a simple recognition of the fact noted in H. R. Rep. No. 1693, at 2: “From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God.”  Reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church.

In her Opinion, Justice Sandra O’Connor took a similar stance:

It [the pledge] does not refer to a nation “under Jesus” or “under Vishnu,” but instead acknowledges religion in a general way: a simple reference to a generic “God.”…  The phrase “under God,” conceived and added at a time when our national religious diversity was neither as robust nor as well recognized as it is now, represents a tolerable attempt to acknowledge religion and to invoke its solemnizing power without favoring any individual religious sect or belief system.

I hope some pretty big red flags popped up in your mind just now as you read these explanations of what “God” must be like in order to be allowed into an official national statement.  Clapp argues in response to Rehnquist and O’Connor’s remarks that “to cite or refer to a ‘God’ who is not the subject or object of ‘any religion,’ who is not the ‘particular God’ of any given faith or church, is to introduce a ‘God’ additional to and apart from the ‘particular’ living God of the Christian church.”

I don’t expect you to be convinced yet, but if you’re interested in the full scoop, you really should read Clapp’s article, which you will find here.  Please, I implore you.  Read it.

And if, like myself, you find the discussion of the pledge of allegiance leading you to inquire about the other references to and invocations of “God” in official government documents and national proclamations (i.e. the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, many patriotic songs, almost every presidential inaugural address), I offer to you my undergraduate capstone research project on the existence and implications of America’s civil religion.

One Nation Under Gosh

Cheers.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I was channel-flipping back and forth between the Open and The Empire Strikes Back for a good part of the time.  In this regard, I have no regrets and apologize for nothing.
** “They should call it BUTTOX!” he quipped jocularly.

A Fire Sale on Brimstone

In terms of celebrity status and public perception, I would like to assert that Rob Bell is the Barack Obama of the current Christian culture.  Take a look:

A few years ago, Barack Obama stepped onto the national political stage as a man looking to shake things up in a big way.

Obama’s message hinged on notions of hope, change, and inclusiveness:  Our nation is in a bad place today.  Many people are getting unfairly excluded from prosperity because our current understanding of America–and the policies and institutions based on this understanding–are wrongheaded, but my vision for America–based on the right ideas–is one of hope and optimism for all people.  Together, we can recapture what America is really about.  What Obama wanted for America was indeed a radical departure from her current trajectory, and hence he instantly became an incredibly polarizing figure; many were attracted to his message and became devoted supporters, while many others entrenched themselves against his ideas and policies.  Naturally, he also became a media darling in no time, being affixed at the epicenter of national political conversation and winning a coveted cover story in Time magazine.  As his first term has played out, the divide of public opinion has only become clearer and wider, with liberals hailing him as a political “messiah” and conservatives branding him the “worst president in U.S. history.”  Recently, Obama’s wave-making earned him a spot in the “2011 Time 100,” which counts him among the “most influential people in the world.”

Now we just do a little name-swapping, throw in some Christianity, and voilà:

A few months ago, pastor/author Rob Bell catapulted onto the Christian radar with the unveiling of his new work Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, a book intended to shake things up in a big way.

Bell’s message hinged on notions of hope, change, and inclusiveness:  The world is in a bad place today.  Many people are being unfairly prevented from coming to know God’s love because our current understanding of God–and our beliefs and sermons based on this understanding–are wrongheaded, but my vision of salvation–based on real biblical ideas–is one of hope and optimism for all people.  Together, we can recapture what the gospel is really about.  What Bell wanted for the Church was indeed a radical departure from her current orthodoxy, and hence he instantly became an incredibly polarizing figure; many were attracted to his message and became devoted supporters, while many others entrenched themselves against his ideas and doctrines.  Naturally, he also became a media darling in no time, being affixed at the epicenter of national Christian conversation and even winning a coveted cover story in Time magazine.  Since the release of Love Wins, the divide of church opinion has only become clearer and wider, with emergents and other sympathizers hailing him as a modern-day prophet and theological conservatives labeling him a false prophet of the most deceptive and dangerous sort.  Recently, Bell’s wave-making earned him a spot in the “2011 Time 100,” which counts him among the “most influential people in the world.”

See what I mean?

Now here’s the part where I reveal what this post is really about.  Is it about politics?  Not really, no; I just thought that the Obama comparison would be a good way to introduce the topic.  (By the way, if you want to play a bonus round with the comparison, it works pretty well with Ronald Reagan too.  Go ahead, try it out.)  Is it my turn to take a shot at reviewing/critiquing Bell?  Mostly no; I don’t think I really have anything to add to this conversation that hasn’t already been said much better elsewhere.  (More on that in a little bit.)  So what’s the point?  The point is simply to make you aware, and to prompt you to think.  Of course, it may seem unnecessary given the fact that, well, Bell’s book has already been discussed to death all over the internet, and the odds of you finding this blog without having already tripped over a pile of articles about it are pretty darn small.  But perhaps a few of you really are hearing about Bell’s book for the first time.  If so, welcome to the conversation.  Please keep your seatbelts fastened and don’t leave small children unattended.

On top of that, the stakes are high in this discussion.  In fact, I daresay they are too high to ignore.  A couple summers ago, when I was working at Wal-Mart, I found a gospel tract on the sink in the bathroom.  As I perused its brief exposition of the good news, I found a page which sums up the afterlife of the unsaved in these words:  “Hell is a terrible place where fire is.”  Now I know that brevity is the soul of wit, but this, brothers and sisters, is not enough.  As Bell says in the video above, “What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.”  The existence or nonexistence of hell is inextricably tied to attributes of God’s character that are critical in determining how we approach Him and how He relates to us–attributes like justice, sovereignty, and yes, love.  I maintain that my life is defined by three words, Jesus loves me, and this conversation about hell is important to the meaning of each of those words, as Bell rightly recognizes.  If we the Church persist in interpreting the Scriptures in a way that affirms the reality of hell, then we must also be ready to supply biblical answers for the questions Bell finds so lethal to the traditional doctrine–answers that go beyond “blind faith” and substantively point us to the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

If you would like to read a thorough and thoughtful orthodox response to Love Wins, I highly recommend Kevin DeYoung’s review over at The Gospel Coalition, a wonderful example of a critique that is both respectful and biblically substantive.  Don’t let the size of the review scare you; if you’re like me, you may occasionally find yourself moved to pause and praise God as you read.

Finally, I’d keep an eye out for Francis Chan’s newly finished book Erasing Hell, which hits store shelves on July 6th.  If you need to be convinced that Chan’s book will be a worthwhile investment, or if you just want to be challenged and edified by the humility of a remarkable man, see the video below.

[Sorry about the back-to-back posts about death and hell.  For the record, I am not obsessed with death OR hell, and I do not plan to write my next post on the lake of burning sulfur.]

Deuteronomy 34 and the God of Death

[You’re probably gonna want to read Deuteronomy 34 and think about it for a little while before reading this.  Seriously, I’m warning you–this post ain’t good for nothin’ unless you meditate on the chapter a bit beforehand.  And why on earth would you want to read my stuff over His stuff anyway?]

The life of Moses was far from typical.  He grew up in the house of his people’s oppressor, chatted with living fire, experienced leprosy in controlled minute-long stints, cut a sea in half, made his followers drink gold dust, and summoned water in the desert by whacking a rock.  Unfortunately, that last little episode—the one time he directly disobeyed a command of God—would precipitate his exclusion from the land of promise and ultimately cost him his life.  It should come as no surprise that, given the exceptionality of his life, Moses’ death was also truly unique.  Without telling the readers what they may most want to know—the precise mechanism of Moses’ death—the author of Deuteronomy 34 (who, unless writing as both a prognosticator and a self-promoter, was most likely not Moses) nevertheless points to several dimensions of Moses’ death that are indicative of universal truths about death and its God.

First, Moses’ death was sad, unfortunate, and undesirable—in other words, it was bad.  There can be no mistaking the fact that, without impugning God’s total sovereignty and foreknowledge, Moses’ dying before entering Canaan was not part of God’s original stated plan for Moses or the Israelites.  It was as if God had prepared Moses his entire life to do something he would never actually do.  The deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and even the wandering in the desert all looked ahead in preparation for the main event, the big show, the whole point—and now the Lord’s hand-picked leader who had whipped the people into shape and led them to the front door was to be killed so as to prevent him from accomplishing the one overarching goal of the last fifty years of his life.  One can see that the tone of this passage regarding Moses’ death is indeed one of failure, of unfulfilled goals and frustrated pursuits.  The Israelites acknowledged the tragedy of Moses’ death to such an extent as to drop all their preparations and mourn for a month.  That this period is called “the time of weeping and mourning” in verse eight suggests that such practice had been standardized among the Israelites so as to greet death with the most obvious and natural response: intense and prolonged sadness.  With no conception of “afterlife” clearly established at this time, the people were probably not warmly imagining Moses as being “in a better place”; instead, they were likely thinking, “Moses is dead and gone, and we don’t even know where God put him.”

Without diminishing the clear and immense badness of Moses’ death, it would yet be folly to miss in Deuteronomy 34 the glimmers of grace amid the tragedy and punishment.  When Moses climbed Mount Nebo for God to show him the land, it is probably safe to assume that Moses was granted a miraculously good look; whether he was given a vision, bequeathed superhuman eyesight, or simply led to the best lookout point ever, the fact is that God was never under any obligation to show him the land.  He did so as an act of grace.  Though not allowing Moses’ rebellion to go unpunished nor reneging on his sentence, God gave Moses a good look at the land—not to “rub it in,” as we would be tempted to do, but to bless him with the comforting knowledge that the land was indeed good and that his work was not in vain.  The prize was real, and the people were really going to get it, despite his mistake.  Furthermore, his legacy would endure—through the Law he handed down, through the man he appointed and blessed, and through whoever made sure that the last paragraph of the Torah, coming right off the heels of this sad tale of Moses’ divine execution, would remind readers that this Moses was the miracle man “whom the LORD knew face to face” (34:10).  Compared to the incident surrounding the Israelites’ first arrival to the promised land, Moses might even have found relief in the fact that the consequences of his sin did not affect the people’s ability to enter the land (unlike Joshua and Caleb’s ten fearful spy buddies).  Thus, while death must come at the appointed time, and death exists as a penalty for sin, God may still graciously make provisions for one to reaffirm the sovereignty and goodness of God in his heart and mind.  Though Moses had to die, he was given the gift of dying well.

Above all, this passage is abundantly clear on the fact that God is the bringer of Moses’ death.  In addition to being the Standard, the Prosecutor, the Judge, and the Jury, in Deuteronomy 34 God is the Executioner.  Verse seven provides the seemingly irrelevant detail that Moses’ “eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.”  Besides further building our heroic image of Moses or even ascribing this phenomenon to the sustaining power of God, examination of the passage seems to point at a different reason for the inclusion of this fact.  Verse seven could easily be put this way:  “Yes, Moses was old when he died, but believe me, he did not die ‘naturally!’”  God’s judgment on Moses was not a mere prediction of when he would die; the implication here is that he would have been physically able and ready to lead the people into Canaan.  No, God decided to kill Moses, to cut short his days.  God killed the Sodomites, God killed Ananias and Sapphira, and God killed Moses.

It might seem a stretch to try to conclude on any rosy note, and Romans 6:23 would probably feel a little cliché, though undeniably applicable.  God brought death to Moses, but not at the cost of his promise to Israel–the promise that led to the Promised One who would defeat death once for all.

Some ‘Splaining To Do

As of today, I am beginning a blog.  And before I get to the juicy stuff, I should probably explain why, because you, Mr. Potential Reader, deserve to know what you’re getting into.  Blogging is an idea I’ve been playing with for a while now (not unlike 75% of people with internet access and “thoughts”), but I’ve been reluctant to take the plunge, for various reasons.  The biggest one, really, is that I find it generally wasteful and distasteful to start a blog that never really goes anywhere or isn’t really about anything.  There are literally hundreds of millions of blogs out there, and I would be skeptical of anyone who claimed that most of them are justified in their existence.  Unfortunately, the same thing can be said for “Christian blogs” too.  I know that the blogosphere has become something of a proving ground or peewee league for Christian writers with aspirations of getting published or “being heard,” but my rule of thumb for navigating the Great Sea of Blogs has always been that if you aren’t already published or I don’t know you personally, I’m just probably not going to gamble with my time by reading your blog.  (Ironically, my own standard would therefore label this blog unfit for almost everyone who might possibly stumble upon it from now ’til the end of time.  I don’t really know what to make of that.  Anyway, moving on.)

It is of course common knowledge that the implicit purpose of many blogs, and indeed of many varieties of personal expression, is reflexive–that is, we write and paint and compose for our own sakes just as much as for others’.  The process of creating a work and forming it in such a way that it expresses something meaningful about its creator is a joy unto itself, as God Almighty can affirm, so naturally I don’t take issue with pieces of writing that are just as much about the making than about what is made.  However, if a blog becomes a mere writing exercise or, as is all too common, an online diary, it will most likely fail to provide readers with either of the two basic things they’re probably looking for in a blog: content that is interesting, and content that is valuable.  A blog about everything is essentially a blog about nothing.  A blog about me would be frightfully scatterbrained to the point of incoherence.  We are instinctively driven and divinely called to create, and there can be great individual benefit to personal journaling and the like, but–as implied–such endeavors may be better fit for personal journals than web pages that your friends and family will no doubt feel obligated to try (or at least pretend) to support, whether you intend them to feel so or not.

Now here’s the point.  This blog exists because I realized something a while back that I want to share with you.  I realized that my life–everything that I am–is defined by one amazing fact: Jesus loves me.  And the more I learn about that love, the more I learn to accept it, I find myself drawn to tell others about it.  As the Lord speaks and moves in my life through His Word, His world, and His children, I want to meditate.  To commemorate.  To grow.  Of course, the fact that I Jordan am writing this blog means that it will by necessity look and sound and probably even smell a little like me.  But, since you are also a human person (probably) who is loved by Jesus Christ (definitely) and would seek to live a life that is fully informed and transformed by His love (and why wouldn’t you?), my hope is that the thoughts and words you find here might be of value to you as well.  I pray that this blog may, by some miracle, move beyond mere therapy; that it may avoid the snare of vanity; and that it may point with every word to the living Christ, whose love for His people is stronger than death itself.

I shall end this first post by reciting The Blogger’s Oath:  In starting this blog, I hereby acknowledge my responsibility for making it worth my time and yours.  I solemnly promise to do all I am able to make sure it is not dumb, pointless, self-absorbed, or heretical, so help me God (please!).  Amen.